A few thoughts on the structure of International Rugby after the lessons learnt from the World Cup

Posted: November 12, 2015 in General Commentary
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As we conclude our look at Rugby World Cup 2015, we take a look at the existing competitive structures in International Test Rugby and throw out some ideas as to how they could be improved.  Lastly we’ll throw out an idea about an annual tournament that we feel is critical if the North/South divide in terms of skill and quality can ever be truly be addressed.  We saw the benefits of how competitive this most recent World Cup was especially from some of the Tier Two countries and it is hoped that Rugby’s global governing body will work hard over the next four years to ensure that this competitiveness across the board is increased.  So we’ll start with Europe first, then the Southern Hemisphere and finally end with an idea that we would like to see implemented if not before this next World Cup then certainly thereafter.  We’ll also look at how North America and the Pacific Islands need to be integrated more into the bigger competitions.

Europe

One thing was abundantly clear in this World Cup, Georgia and Romania need greater exposure to quality Test matches on a more regular basis.  Georgia especially were one of the revelations of the tournament, and if they can ever develop a back line to match the power of their forwards then they should be able to mix it with the best.  Romania also showed great promise at this World Cup and were a problematic side for everyone in their pool.

As far as we’re concerned the first changes need to happen with the European Champions Cup.  In the case of Georgia and Romania both these teams should be integrated more effectively into the lesser Competition the Challenge Cup.  If successful after a two-year period then they should be allowed to qualify for the premier tournament the Champions Cup.  There should be a qualification system for the Champions Cup and a Romanian and Georgian side should be given the chance to compete for a spot.  Given the woeful state of Italian club rugby at the moment, I can’t see how we can continue to justify their inclusion in the Champions Cup at the expense of Georgia or Romania.  If a relegation system meant that poorly performing sides would be out of the competition for a year then I think you would see an increase in performance from existing teams seeking to avoid relegation and those seeking qualification.  In short a win for European rugby as a whole.

This then raises the thorny issue of the Six Nations.  While this tournament steeped in history has always developed along an invitational basis, I can’t help feel that for the good of the tournament and European rugby in general this needs to change.  A relegation system needs to be put in place similar to the one proposed for the European Champions Cup.  While the Six Nations continues there should be a parallel tournament for the six other Tier Two countries in Europe.  The wooden spoon holders for the year in the Six Nations would then be relegated to the Tier Two competition the following year while the top team in the Tier Two competition would take the place of the wooden spoon holder of that year’s Six Nations.  This would ensure that while Georgia and Romania are not guaranteed a place in the Six Nations they can compete for a place every year.  Meanwhile underperforming sides of the last few years such as Italy and Scotland would have some real incentive to up their game to avoid relegation for a year.  Having said that I think Scotland’s woes are a thing of the past in the Six Nations but Italy is under pressure and even France is in danger of struggling to field a genuine Six Nations team.  Contentious perhaps, but worth doing for the continued development of a quality game in Europe – absolutely!

Southern Hemisphere

For the most part I don’t see a great need for change here.  Super Rugby is producing a superb standard of rugby year in/year out and the inclusion of an Argentinian team will only add more spice to an already highly entertaining competition.  There has been much debate about Japan’s inclusion but after this World Cup and Japan’s heroics I doubt that there are too many people complaining, even though they may be scratching their heads regarding the logistics of it all.  With the development of a professional league in North America in the next few years though, there could be scope for including a North American team in the competition, but I doubt very much that this is something we could consider until after the next World Cup.

The Rugby Championship which replaced the old Tri-Nations format once Argentina was included is the Southern Hemisphere’s equivalent of Europe’s Six Nations.  Here I do feel there is room for change as well although perhaps not until after the next World Cup.  The Pacific Island countries of Samoa, Tonga and Fiji although firmly camped in the Southern Hemisphere lack any kind of regular international top-level competition.  The same applies for the North American teams and Japan even though they can’t be regarded as Southern Hemisphere teams.  They have the annual Pacific Nations Cup which is a worthy tournament and gets more competitive each year, but ultimately they will need annual exposure to either the Southern Hemisphere’s big four or Europe.  I would argue that Europe is perhaps too crowded to include them on an annual basis but there is room in the South.  Therefore, post 2019 the Rugby Championship could be expanded to five countries and the Pacific Nations Cup reduced to five countries.  The top team from the Pacific Nations Cup every year would qualify for a place in an expanded Rugby Championship while wooden spoon holders in the Rugby Championship would be relegated to the Pacific Nations Cup the following year.  As proposed for the Six Nations in Europe both these competitions would be run in parallel every year.  I doubt there are many people who could deny the benefit the Pacific Islands, North American and Japanese national teams would derive from this kind of annual exposure.

Hemispheres Cup

What on earth I hear you say is this?!!!!  This is a perhaps far-fetched brainchild of the Lineout but something we think is absolutely critical if the debates raging in pubs and bars around the globe as to which part of the world plays better rugby is ever to end.  At the moment apart from the World Cup every four years there is no annual regular competition to allow us to really see how the North/South divide really measures up.  Sure there are the summer and autumn internationals but these tend to be one-off tests in which the Northern Hemisphere inevitably get thrashed away from home in June, and then manage to bag a few one-off victories at home in November.  As far as I am concerned the only way we are going to make sure that competitions such as the Six Nations and Rugby Championship are on a level footing is to have teams from both competitions meet once a year and go head to head for a title.  Hence the proposed Hemispheres Cup.  So how on earth would this work I hear you say?

Every year the top two teams from the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship compete at the end of the year in place of the annual autumn tours of Europe by the Southern Hemisphere teams.  The Autumn tests would still continue in that the two lowest ranked teams (or three if the Rugby Championship ever was expanded to five countries as proposed above) in the Rugby Championship would still tour the four lowest ranked teams in that year’s Six Nations.  This would have the added advantage of freeing up some quality opposition for some Tier Two countries touring Europe in November such as Canada, USA, Japan and the Pacific Island countries as in the past these countries have struggled to get more than one if any fixtures against the Six Nations teams.  Georgia and Romania could also benefit from this process as well in November.

However the two top teams from each competition, the Six Nations and Rugby Championship would play each other in October/November in a proposed Hemispheres Cup in place of their regular participation in the Autumn Tests.  Let’s use this year’s standings as an example.  England and Ireland topped the Six Nations while Australia and New Zealand did the same in the Rugby Championship.  Therefore in November they would play each other in a format similar to that of the abbreviated Rugby Championship we saw this year.  To keep things fair and so that it’s not always home European advantage, the winner would also ensure that the tournament for the following year would be held on their side of the equator.  For a competition to be held in the Southern Hemisphere it would probably have to be moved to the middle of October as opposed to November.  If we are really serious about bridging the gap between Southern and Northern Hemisphere rugby then an annual competition such as this for a recognised trophy that actually means something as opposed to a one-off friendly is the only way to do this.

Scheduling

Now here’s where I hear you all say, well that sounds great but how on earth is it going to get slotted into all the other rugby going on?  Challenging but not impossible.

European Champions Cup – October/December/January/April/May
European Challenge Cup – October/December/January/April/May

Six Nations – February/March
European Tier Two Challenge – February/March

Super Rugby – February/March/April/May/First two weeks of July

June tours of the Southern Hemisphere – June

Rugby Championship – Last week of July/August/September
Pacific Nations Cup – Last week of July/August/September

Autumn Internationals Europe – November

Hemispheres Cup – October/November

While I appreciate that there are domestic competitions to fit around all of this, the primacy and ultimate spectacle of Rugby Union is still, as evidenced by the World Cup, the International Test Arena and long may it stay that way. There are significant challenges from clubs, none more so than in France, where the national interests of the sport are being slowly strangled in the rampant commercial interests of the domestic competition. However, as witnessed by the phenomenal television viewing statistics of the recent World Cup what players and supporters are inspired by the most is the ultimate excitement of country versus country. Rugby is unique in this more so than any other sport and it is our belief that to keep it that way is vital to the continued growth and success of our glorious game!

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